Join the Union, and Other Quaint Recommendations

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have always liked American folk music. I first recall hearing a
folk song in 1950, “Goodnight, Irene,” which was performed by a
new group, The
. This song was a big hit nationally, as was its flip
side — a rare event in pop music — “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.”
The Weavers followed this double hit with “So Long (It’s Been Good
to Know You”), “On Top of Old Smokey,” and others. The money rolled

The Weavers were leftists. They ran into booking problems two years
later when the lead male singer, Pete Seeger, was accused by Harvey
Matusow of being a member of the Communist Party. Liberals were
outraged at the blacklisting of The Weavers. But, as it turned out,
Seeger really was a Communist. In the Communist Party’s official
newspaper, People’s Daily World (April 7, 1988), a fund-raising
appeal included a boxed article with Seeger’s photograph, banjo
on his knee, reading the Daily World. The accompanying letter
from Seeger said:

is about 35 years since, as a card-carrying member of the Communist
Party, I read the Worker almost daily, in addition to reading
several other magazines and newspapers every week. . . . And I
urge any other citizen concerned about the future of our country
and of the world to likewise look through this working-class newspaper;
because if there is going to be a future for any of us, it is
going to include all of us.

Pete in 1988 was having a little fun at the expense of the 1950’s-era
conservatives, who had always used the phrase, “card-carrying Communist.”
But then, a few months later, Old Mikhail had a little fun at the
expense of Pete: he announced that the USSR was bankrupt, and he
allowed the Berlin Wall to be pulled down the next year. The paper’s
fund-raiser apparently failed. I can find no trace of it on the

I got more deeply into folk music when I got a job at a local record
store. (Note for young people: a “record” was a thin, circular plastic
disk imprinted with grooves. This disk spun on a “turntable,” over
which was suspended a “needle,” attached to a “cartridge,” at the
end of a “tone arm.” From this implausible arrangement, sounds were
emitted by speakers. Think of it as a CD that added authentic clicks
and pops. The sound was accompanied by a shout from the other room,
“Turn that thing down!” This was because commercial high fidelity
stereo headphones did not arrive until late 1958. Ever since 1958,
young people have been able to permanently damage their hearing
without bothering anyone else — a basic libertarian principle:
the right of self-inflicted stupidity.)


found out early that urban folk music composed after 1930 was heavily
influenced by the trade union movement. There were exceptions, such
as Leadbelly
(Huddie Ledbetter)
, whose song, “Goodnight, Irene,” launched
the folk movement about a year after he died. But Woody Guthrie,
Seeger, Cisco Houston, and other prominent white urban folk singers
in the 1930’s had been Communists or far-left Democrats.

Of all the urban folk music performers I can think of — the
city-billies — only one was known to be a card-carrying conservative:
John Greenway, by far the best educated of the lot. He was a professor
of anthropology at the University of Colorado. He described himself
on the flyleaf of his study of Australian aborigines, Down
Among the Wild Men
, as being to the right of Attila the
Hun. His National Review article, “Will the Indians Get Whitey”
(March 11, 1969), I regard as by far as the only indispensable article
ever published in that magazine — described as “infamous” by
Journal of American Indian Education.
But Greenway was not a major figure in the urban folk music scene.

the blacklist, The
Weavers made it to Carnegie Hall
on Christmas Eve, 1955, and
the concert sold out. The concert album the following year pushed
Vanguard Records into solvency. (Vanguard’s back list — very
different from a black list — was bought out by the Lawrence
Welk music empire a few years ago, which is a classic example of
the revenge of the bourgeois class.)

in 1958, The
Kingston Trio
recorded a gigantic hit of a mediocre song, “Tom
Dooley,” which turned the folk music phenomenon into a cultural
force, especially among my generation, who graduated from college
before the Beatles arrived. The group could sing well, but there
was a canard, as each Kingston Trio hit record was released, that
you could tell which page of Seeger’s How
to Play the 5-String Banjo
that Dave Guard had reached.
For five years, they got very rich. One of the group’s last big
hits was “The New Frontier” (1962), a JFK puff piece. I recall no
Richard Nixon puff-piece hit records.

Throughout the period, there has been a tradition of non-political
folk music. There are still a few urban performers who keep the
tradition alive. Steve Gillette and Cindy
are among the best who are still on the road, still
digging up old music (she is musicologist) and writing new music
in the older styles. His most famous song is “Darcy Farrow,” a fine
example of modern song writing in a traditional form. Even better
is “Healing Hands,” the story of growing old productively. But their
market is miniscule. His first album was released by Vanguard in
1967, two years after the pied piper had led the children out of
the green valley of folk music into the bright lights of the city
of folk rock.

pied piper was Bob
, whose 1962 album had featured his unaccompanied acoustic
guitar. It was not political. He also began writing songs recorded
by other performers, some folk (“Walkin’ Down the Line”), some political
(“Blowin’ in the Wind”). In 1965, he went electric with the mega-hit,
“Like a Rolling Stone,” and then, a week after it was released,
he brought his electrified band onto the stage of the Newport Folk
Festival. It was at that event that Seeger actually wanted to cut
the amplifier cable with an axe — which speaks well of Seeger,
artistically. (I recently saw a PBS documentary where Seeger talked
about his reaction.) But Seeger’s artistic instincts were way off-base
ideologically. Over the next five years Dylan and his amplified
peers marched the popular music world sharply to the left. Seeger,
like Mr. Jones, didn’t understand what was happening in 1965.

suppose the best artistic treatment of Dylan is Paul Simon’s parody,
“A Simple Desultory Philippic.” It is a lot funnier than
“Sounds of Silence.”


Throughout history, folk music has been a major form of cultural
transmission and preservation. The music focuses on the major issues
of life: love (mainly unrequited or regretted), death, heartbreak,
wars, and poverty. “Happy Days Are Here Again” is not a folk song.
Folk music is also the music of lost causes. This leads me to North’s
Law of Folk Music
: “The winners write the history textbooks,
and the losers write the folk songs.”

The songs often maintain an aura of hopefulness, despite the lostness
of the cause. One of my favorite old ballads, “Copper Kettle,” is
a song about illegal whiskey production. It has this stirring line:
“We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since seventeen-ninety-two.” Hope
springs eternal. No cause is completely lost that offers an enduring
ballad about a political principle worth pursuing and also a tax-free
retailing network.

four decades, I have been a fan of Celtic folk music. I was introduced
to the tradition by the Clancy
Brothers and Tommy Makem
. Seeger was one of their early promoters
when they were all with Columbia Records. My middle name is Scottish,
perhaps the most Scottish of all Scots names, the very essence of
the Scottish tradition: Kilgore. That was what the Scots did for
two thousand years. The Emperor Hadrian had a wall built across
northern England to keep out the Scots. That wall marked the far
northern edge of the Roman Empire. Beyond that wall, the costs were
just not worth the benefits . . . and there were nasty spillover
effects, too.

So, Scottish music is often about wars, usually lost wars. The best-known
musical instrument of the Scots is the bagpipe, which technically
is the Great Highland War Pipe (capitalized, please). Its wailing
sound announced that the crazies were coming to kill you, unless
you could buy them off (which was not too hard). There are bag pipe
jokes, just as there are lawyer jokes. “How is an onion different
from a bag pipe?” “Because nobody cries when you peel a bagpipe.”
Yet it is respected as the instrument, more than any other, that
is associated with the funerals of men who died on active duty.

The music is divided religiously. Irish music is Catholic, and it
features lost Catholic causes that turned out to be nation-building
in retrospect after 1922. Scottish music is divided: some Catholic
(highlands, Bonnie Prince Charlie, etc.) and some Protestant (Scotch
Irish or Northern Ireland, Western Carolinas).

There is a Celtic music circuit. The performers, like American folk
musicians, are divided into two main artistic camps, with some crossovers:
the music of common people in life’s struggles that are common to
all people, written mainly by commoners and poets, and the music
of workers in their struggles against capitalist bosses, written
by mainly left-wing, middle-class intellectuals. To name representative
performers of these rival artistic positions: Alex Beaton vs. Brian

If you want the truth, the big crowds at the Celtic music festivals
attend the Celtic rock bands, like Brother
or Seven
, which are mainly loud — amplified bagpipes can
be quite loud — and stomping, but with more melody than Anglo
rock bands. But I digress.

The fiddle is a featured instrument. (“A violin is a fiddle that
went to college.” — Roy Clark.) The tradition of Celtic dancing
runs deep, and fiddles are fairly loud instruments, suitable for
dances. The guitar is popular, another dance instrument. There are
other less known instruments, such as the Bouzouki, a kind of 12-string
guitar/mandolin device.

Because of the dancing connection, Celtic music is not big with
Baptists. (“Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up?” “If they were
caught, word might get out that they had been dancing.”) Mountain
music is acceptable in the rural South, and these days bluegrass
is big, both of which are descendants of Celtic music, but the real
stuff is suspect. So, attendees at Celtic festivals are mainly successful
Scots in business and the professions, who come to hear songs about
lower-class losers and their lost causes, and middle-class Irish,
who come to hear songs about how tough things were before the Brits
were booted out. They celebrate, side by side, by drinking a lot
of Guinness (British).


plays the fiddle spectacularly, the guitar well, and
the bouzouki, the mandolin, the concertina, something called the
cittern, and the hurdy-gurdy (but not often). He is a poet. He writes
musically compelling songs. And he is to Celtic music what Peter
Seeger is to American folk music. He was born in 1950, so he grew
up long after the lower classes got out of poverty. He grew up when
their children got into drugs. He is a man of the 1970’s whose stage
persona is that of a man in the 1930’s. As far as I can tell, he
really believes it.

This man of the people — by way of the electric guitar at age 18
— is the head of Scottish music at the Royal Scottish Academy of
Music and Drama, which pays him quite well to travel the English-speaking
world, sing songs about joining the union, and sell his CD’s to
his devoted upper-middle-class fans.

I understand his arrangement with the Royal Scottish Academy, it
works like this. The government taxes people, including working
men, and part of the money is turned over to the Royal Scottish
Academy, which then pays Mr. McNeill to do what he was doing anyway
— sing at Celtic festivals — and to keep any money earned.
He maintains his emotional connection to the working men who pay
his salary by insisting that his middle-class fans join in a chorus
of “join the union” several times. Somehow, I don’t think this is
what Karl Marx and Kier Hardie had in mind as the evidence of loyalty
to the working class.

A few years ago, he told his audience, “Do you know what musicians
talk about after the show? Money!” This, I believe.

His love of Scottish music is matched only by his hatred of Margaret
Thatcher. He and other members of the political troubadours never
tire of lambasting Mrs. Thatcher. They never say why. Most Americans
would not remember, but I do. It was because she stood up to Arthur
Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 when the
union’s leaders tried, one last time, to blackmail the British with
the threat of getting through winter with no coal. She would not
back down. She did the unforgivable thing. She supported the miners,
73% of whom had voted to end the strike.
The miners went back to work. There has not been a major strike
in Great Britain since then. She definitively broke the power of
compulsory unionism in Great Britain.

In 1996, Scargill quit the Labour Party because Tony Blair’s government
had become far closer to Mrs. Thatcher’s views of the free market
than Scargill thought proper. He now heads the insignificant Socialist
Labour Party, which he founded in 1996. He has been consigned by
Tony Blair to the dustbin of history. Mrs. Thatcher dumped him there
first, in full public view. Mr. Blair simply screwed down the lid,
good and tight. Scargill laments:

Labour has refused to repeal the Tories’ web of anti-union laws
which helped destroy thousands upon thousands of jobs and devastate
communities, spreading long-term unemployment with tragic social
consequences — including increased racism and drug abuse — throughout
entire regions of Britain.

committed to the ‘free market’ of global capitalism, New Labour
in government is incapable of creating the conditions necessary
for a stable and prosperous Britain. New Labour’s “job creation”
ploys such as the New Deal cannot address this crisis, but the
government refuses to help regenerate those industries —
ship-building, textiles, engineering, steel, coal — whose
demise has turned Britain from a producing society to one dependent
on imports.

Labour refuses to bring back into public ownership our railway
network which, controlled by a host of different companies, is
now falling apart — with terrible consequences for passengers
and workers alike.

Mrs. Thatcher proved that trade union blackmail could be successfully
resisted. She publicly broke the back of the socialists who ran
the far-left trade unions, but who no longer represented the opinions
of the members. Her re-election proved that the political power
of compulsory trade unionism was over. Tony Blair fully understands
this, just as Bill Clinton understood that Reagan’s breaking of
the striking PATCO workers (the air traffic controllers’ union)
in 1981 had accomplished the same feat in the United States.

Brian McNeill cannot forgive her for this. So, he takes every opportunity
to sneer at her, to American audiences who voted to elect Reagan,
and then voted for Clinton, whose rhetoric Blair has imitated. He
sings the old songs, like “Sell Your Labor, Not Your Soul,” with
the chorus, “join the union, join the union.” He sings it in Texas,
the premier “right to work” state, where hardly anyone has joined
a union, other than the National Education Association, in four
decades. He lives in a fantasy world. But his listeners sing along,
because after they are forced to sing five choruses of “join the
union,” they know he will play his fiddle again. They come to hear
him play the fiddle. Like the evening preacher at a skid row rescue
mission, he makes them listen to his sermon before they get their

My wife turned to me in the middle of one of his sermons and said,
“I’m tired of this.” My answer: “We’ve won.” When a movement relies
on state-funded urban folk singers to carry its message to the masses,
and when the masses are upper-middle-class people at a music concert,
that movement has moved into the dustbin of history. It’s right
down there with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s revolt against King George
II. McNeill knows that the Bonnie Prince’s rebellion was a lost
cause for losers, but he hasn’t figured out that Arthur Scargill’s
cause is just as lost.

So, let Pete Seeger sing the old songs (vintage 1934), just so long
as he plays his 12-string guitar. Let Brian McNeill sing them, too,
preferably with his bouzouki. Every chorus reminds me, “We’ve won
that battle.”

Meanwhile, Guinness is doing quite well. “Another round!”

27, 2002

North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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